War Powers, War Lies: Part 3: Tonkin Spook

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column |  Next Big Picture Column 

War Powers Page | Previous War Powers ColumnNext War Powers Column

War Powers, War Lies, A Series

Part 3: Tonkin Spook

Published in the Maryland Daily Record March 25, 2005

          The night of August 4, 1964 was dark and drizzly over the Gulf of Tonkin, which lies between China and North Vietnam.  Two U.S. destroyers, the Turner Joy and the Maddox, were on patrol there that night.  These waters were not familiar to the U.S. sailors.  In particular, the radiomen aboard were totally unacquainted with a well-documented if never well-understood local meteorological condition known as Tonkin Spook.  This manifests itself by radar readings of craft that are not there.  These “ghosts” appear real and constant for brief periods of time, a minute or two, and then disappear, perhaps to reappear elsewhere in a short while. 

          The military mission that had brought these mariners to share the Gulf with apparitions that night has never been reasonably explained, but it was likely primarily a matter of creating a provocation.  Lyndon Johnson and his Administration had been looking for justification to expand the size of the U.S. military contingent in Vietnam, and to adopt an explicitly offensive role toward North Vietnam, since at least June.  This search for a rationale sprang from the stark realization that, public declarations of confidence notwithstanding, the South Vietnamese government and military were not so slowly collapsing, in response to the pressure exerted by the native insurrectionists the Vietcong, by North Vietnamese soldiers being infiltrated into the South down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and, by the corruption, instability and ineptness of the South Vietnamese government.  Under these circumstances, a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. shipping could lend justification to the plans of Johnson and his advisors to take the war to the North and to Americanize the conflict in the South.

           The Maddox had actually been attacked by, and beaten back, a squadron of three North Vietnamese PT boats two days earlier.  The Administration had chosen not to make an issue of that engagement, probably because it might have been hard to convince the world the attack was unprovoked.  An amphibious raid, nominally South Vietnamese, but American in reality, at least to the extent of planning and supply, and possibly extending to the covert presence of Navy SEALS on the mission, had been operating in North Vietnam earlier in the day, in a location far closer to the Maddox’s real course than the U.S. officially admitted.  Reasonably, though mistakenly, the North Vietnamese apparently took the two operations as coordinated, and responded accordingly.  Johnson’s war counselors would have understood that the rest of the world might draw the same conclusion, and did not press the point.

           But in what happened on the night of August 4, further north, there was no such distraction from the Administration’s storyline.  Of course, there was also no North Vietnamese attack, just Tonkin Spook, although, without doubt, the sailors involved certainly believed there had been.  You can read the meticulous dissection of the mass hallucination and the chaos it led to, in Professor Edwin Moïse’s book Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill 1996).  This was truly fog of war at its worst.  The destroyers blasted away for hours at the nonexistent attackers, the sonarmen interpreted the destroyers’ own screw noise or “knuckle” as belonging to hostile PT boats, and panicked lookouts spotted nonexistent incoming torpedoes.  Sailors were shaken up, and one injured by the destroyers’ abrupt evasive movements.  At one point the Maddox’s 5-inch guns locked onto its own sister ship and were prepared to let fly when two alert fire control technicians refused to obey orders to fire.  A minute later, when upon request the Turner Joy flashed its truck lights, it became evident the technicians had been correct: one U.S. warship had come within a whisker of blasting another U.S. warship out of the water.  Meanwhile, fighter pilots streaked overhead and continued to report that they could see no hostile craft anywhere, but they were ignored.

           Given all this chaos, the initial reports filtering back naturally gave some credibility to the notion that the ships had been attacked, but LBJ knew better from the first.  He told Undersecretary of State George Ball: “Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!”  This awareness changed nothing.  The word was filtered down to write after-action reports supporting the notion that the North Vietnamese had tried to sink U.S. vessels, even after the captain of the Maddox urged that a “complete evaluation” be done before reaching that conclusion.  The required reports duly appeared, in the teeth of huge and well-justified misgivings by almost everyone involved in writing them.  This much everyone agreed on: there had been no visual sightings of the “bandits,” and everyone knew the North Vietnamese could never summon up a fleet of the size the radar showed had been attacking.  Most reasonable military men understood that the courses plotted for the “bandits” were impossible.  But the White House and the Navy “brass” in Honolulu wanted reports written up a certain way, and they were. 

           Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was in the meantime sent to brief the press and the Congress and told a series of “whoppers”: that the North Vietnamese had illuminated the destroyers with searchlights, that they had bombarded the destroyers with guns far larger than he had any reason to believe their navy possessed, that the destroyers were far from the coast when in fact they were close.  Johnson made a speech the next day in which he described the supposed attacks as “aggression, deliberate, willful and systematic.”  And he claimed “complete and incontrovertible evidence” that the attacks had occurred.  Press coverage followed the official line, even when errors and contradictions were apparent.

           Johnson was quite conscious that when Harry Truman had led the U.S. into the Korean War, he had done so without explicit Congressional authorization, which had proved a liability.  But Johnson thought of it as a political, not a Constitutional, liability.  He told McNamara: “By God, I’m going to be damned sure those guys are with me when we begin this thing, or they may try to desert me after I get in there.”  How Johnson pursued this goal has been well described in Eric Alterman’s 2004 book When Presidents Lie.  Johnson sent Congress what he called the Joint Resolution to Promote the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia, which came to be known simply as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, H.R.J.RES., 88th Cong., 2d Sess., 78 Stat. 384 (1964).  Congress passed it three days after the supposed incident.  Section I of the Resolution, the “business end” of the enactment, commended to the President, “as Commander in Chief,” the authority “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression.”

           As quoted above, Johnson planned to use this broadly worded authorization as a “blank check” for any escalation of the conflict he might desire.  But he sold it to Congress as something less.  His floor manager was Senator William Fulbright, later a tenacious critic of the war, but at that point still a friend and confidant.  Johnson saw to it that Fulbright was walled off from knowledge like the covert amphibious raids, or the comments of the Maddox’s skipper about needing a “complete evaluation,” and also from all indications of Johnson’s true design. Accordingly, when dissenters in the Senate warned that the broad language could be used to authorize a huge expansion of the War, Fulbright assured them that “Everyone [in the Administration] I have heard has said that the last thing we want to do is become involved in a land war in Asia.”  Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska warned that what was really at stake was “a predated declaration of war,” and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon observed that “history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States” by giving the President “warmaking powers in the absence of a declaration of war.”  But out of all 535 members of Congress they were in the end the only dissenters.

           And, of course, they were right.

            Gruening and Morse were right that the Resolution would be used as the equivalent of a declaration of war because, of course, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were winning, and they were not about to give up.  As they intensified their attacks on the South in late 1964, and as the South Vietnamese government went through two coups in early 1965 (there was another before the year was out), Johnson deemed it imperative to commit massive forces, first continuous air attacks on the North known as Rolling Thunder (an operation which went on for three years), and almost simultaneously large-scale augmentation of the corps of U.S. military “advisors” on the ground.  The new troops were there to fight, not to advise.  There were 200,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam at the end of 1965, 400,000 at the end of 1966, and 500,000 at the end of 1967.  It was an American war.

           And not just a war, but a war of the worst kind, built on lies: lies about what we were fighting for, lies about the Tonkin incident, lies about the nature of the instrument that Congress executed when it approved the Tonkin Resolution.  Lies that would cost the U.S. 57,685 killed and about 153,303 wounded. Lies whose unmasking, as happened throughout the proceedings but especially when the so-called Pentagon Papers were published, left the country hopelessly and tragically divided, torn by protests and riots and immolations and responsive police and militia brutality.  It was about as bad as a war not fought on U.S. soil could get.

           Gruening and Morse were also right about the end run around the Constitution.  Because even if, as discussed last time, Congress could constitutionally authorize an “imperfect war” with an imperfect declaration like the Tonkin Resolution, that second-best form of declaration at least needed to be understood as such to gain legitimacy. Johnson’s men knowingly obfuscated to prevent such knowledge.  And predictably, when objections were raised to the legitimacy of the war, the Resolution was raised as a defense by both Johnson and his successor Richard Nixon.  It had been bait-and-switch after all.

           To be fair, Congress did more than just pass the Resolution.  It also authorized war-specific appropriations in 1965, continued to fund the military throughout, and passed extensions of the draft.  But it was the Tonkin Resolution, above all, that Johnson and later on President Nixon pointed to as their authority.  And courts frequently found that the Resolution, with or without subsequent Congressional acts, was the Constitutional equivalent of a declaration of war.

           The Resolution itself was eventually repealed under Nixon, tacked quietly onto a trade bill in January 1971, just as the American forces were beginning to be withdrawn.  But the American deployment the Resolution had initiated would not fully end for another two years.

           One of the Navy pilots who had been streaking overhead the night of August 4, 1964 was Commander James Stockdale, who would later rise to the rank of Vice Admiral, and would still later become a Vice Presidential candidate along with Ross Perot.  In a memoir quoted in Eric Alterman’s book at Page 237, Stockdale recalled being visited on the flight deck a few days after the “incident” by an assistant to McNamara.  The assistant told him: “We were sent out here just to find out one thing.  Were there any fuckin’ boats out there the other night or not?”  That question, Stockdale mused, “said it all.”  He could “stand right there in the cabin and write the script of what was to come: Washington’s second thoughts: the guilt, the remorse, the tentativeness, the changes of heart, the back-out.  And a generation of young Americans would get left holding the bag.”  Stockdale should know about holding the bag: the next year he would be shot down and spend seven and a half years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war subject to routine torture.  He would be kept in solitary confinement for four years.  He would be held in leg irons for two years.  He had to go through that and more because in the end McNamara’s men did not really care whether there had been any boats or not, and McNamara’s boss LBJ did not care about telling Congress what he was asking for.

           That lack of care had a long and distinguished pedigree, much of which Johnson and his men had to know.  Presidents had been lying about war and not caring about it throughout our history, and we have all been helping them out by lying to ourselves.  Next time we will review some of that story.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column |  Next Big Picture Column 

War Powers Page | Previous War Powers ColumnNext War Powers Column

Leave a Reply